A few dead seabirds – does it matter?

A guillemot - this one is bridled. By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
A guillemot – this one is bridled. By Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a second mention in a row for the RSPCA.  Their name has been in the news recently for their rescue of oiled seabirds on the south coast of England.

Rather than being washed up covered in thick black oil these seabirds, mostly guillemots, have been found on the coast from Cornwall to Hampshire covered in a white sticky substance.  RSPCA deputy chief inspector John Pollock, who has been leading the rescue mission in Dorset, described the substance as “white, odourless and globular”. He added: “It is like a silicone sealer. The best way I can think to describe it is ‘sticky Vaseline’.”.

As well as guillemots there are a few razorbills, puffins and cormorants.  I was interested to read in the RSPB release that some of the guillemots are in breeding plumage (and are therefore probably birds that breed locally in the southwest) and some are still in winter plumage (and are probably birds that nest in Scotland or perhaps Norway.

Most recovered birds (dead or alive) seem to have come from the Dorset area around Portland Bill.

This incident has been a perfect story for the media and it has had quite a lot of coverage.  There are dead birds, and live birds, and there are people in white coats cleaning oiled birds in an attempt to rescue them – all good footage.  The geographic scale of the impact is wide and involves ‘hundreds’ of birds.  The actual number of birds involved is difficult to assess and allows plenty of speculation.  The identity of the polluting substance is unknown and its source, presumably some boat moving through the English Channel, is also unknown – there is an air of mystery.

Some more guillemots. By michael clarke stuff (Guillemots  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Some more guillemots. By michael clarke stuff (Guillemots Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But how important is this incident – and incidents of this type? There are a few million pairs of guillemots in Europe – mostly in the UK and Iceland – and occasional losses of hundreds or even thousands of birds are a drop in the ocean (as it were).  And certainly ‘saving’ a few tens of birds for re-release into the seas is an act of kindness to individual birds but a matter of no consequence in conservation terms as it will make no long term difference to population levels.  Indeed, I remember a scientific paper which suggested that the survival rates of released ‘saved’ oiled seabirds wasn’t particularly good.  So cleaning up, feeding up and releasing oiled seabirds is something that makes us feel good because we are ‘doing something’ and because it does, perhaps, make the lives of many individual birds better, but it doesn’t make the future for guillemots as a whole better.

Clearly, cleaning oiled seabirds is dealing with the symptoms of a problem rather than dealing with the problem as a whole.  It is a humanitarian (or a guillemotarian) act but it doesn’t solve the problem of releasing toxic substances into the seas.  As I write, we don’t seem to know what the substance is or whence it came so we aren’t even in a particularly good position to enforce existing legislation that makes this type of release illegal.

By Sean O'Flaherty (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sean O’Flaherty (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The RSPB release links this event to the need for Marine Protected Areas – which is understandable and odd at the same time.  Understandable because there is a great need for MPAs and this government is being particularly negligent in implementing the Marine and Coastal Access Act to give us some.  But odd in that in the fluid marine environment it matters hardly at all whether oil is released in or out of MPAs because it will flow into and out of them.  There are no fences around protected sites at sea.

And so to revitalise the marine environment (which we need to do for our own good as well as that of marine biodiversity) we need a much more sustainable approach to using it.  We need marine spatial planning, marine protected areas, well-regulated fisheries and regulations that prevent release of pollutants (as in this case).  Many wildlife NGOs are working for those aims but government is making very little progress across this wide front.

And therefore when I see guillemots being hosed down and gently cleaned I have mixed emotions.  It is a classic example of dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes; it is a classic example of us acting with our hearts rather than our heads; but it is also better to do something than nothing; and if we can harness the care that we feel for injured individuals to a better outcome for injured habitats and ecosystems then both will face a much better future.

We are dealing here with the wildlife equivalent of much emergency aid for the less developed world; the images tug at our heartstrings, we want to help but we do too little to prevent a recurrence of the problem.


Some more Guillemots - live. By Leithp [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Some more Guillemots – live. By Leithp [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

32 Replies to “A few dead seabirds – does it matter?”

  1. Only you could put your head above the parapet like this! Sadly it seems that us humans seem to comprehend individual animals or at least that which we can see.

    Your blog follows the news very well and by and large I agree with your take on it. It seems to me that we should decouple conservation science from animal welfare and animal politics. Commentary on oiled seabirds, far and birds, badgers, hedgehogs, hunting (legal and illegal), harriers, lead shot etc always gets mired in emotion and politics, the science falls by the wayside. My morning ‘fix’ of your blog generally keeps the science at the top of your mind.

    I do however agree that press coverage of wildlife events, any involvement of people in the natural world keeps nature closer to people’s hearts, and that can only be a good thing.

  2. mark
    So what do you think should have been done in this case? perhaps leave the dying birds alone and just carry on with daily routines and ignore this pollution incident? paople carrying out this work provide valuable information about pollution incidents and more importantly bring a great deal of publicity to such problems

      1. It is difficult to be optimistic on that point. For many years now the MARPOL convention has made it illegal worldwide for shipping to discharge oils into the sea and it is hard to believe that there can be any ship’s officers who are unaware of this. Unfortunately it is very difficult to enforce on the high seas so the less scrupulous ship’s crews will continue to dump oils and other pollutants overboard when they think they can get away with it.
        It would be nice to think that a chemical analysis of the oil could be matched to the cargo manifest of a ship recently passing through the English Channel so the Captain can be held to account but realistically I don’t suppose that is going to happen.

        1. Jonathan – i would hope so too. I wouldn’t have thought it is impossible either. Fingers crossed.

          When there was speculation that it might have been palm oil I was getting ready to write a blog about how palm oil kills tigers in the far east and guillemots in the south west – but there you go!

  3. Mark is not really being as controversial as it seems – this dilemma was examined in quite a lot of detail a few years ago by the RSPCA themselves. The survival rate of rescued birds as low as 25% in some oiling cass and the RSPCA quite rightly looked at whether the economic outlay was justified by the results. Unfortunately, they had already created the precedent and just standing by and watching would certainly have been unacceptable to the public. There are still a lot of unknowns in the cleaning process but the rescue efforts are a little more efficient these days and survival rates are thought to have increased. Nevertheless, all NGOs must look at their own mission statements and decide what part they are dealing with and that poses its own problems.

    The RSPB does not rescue wildlife but it is concerned with marine pollution, the RSPCA rescues wildlife but addressing the causes of pollution does not fall within its remit. It is always difficult to know how far to comment in these situations and it is one of the reasons why animal welfare and conservation get so badly mixed up. In this case, the subjects have come so close together that they are almost touching and some press reports even suggested the RSPB was coordinating rescue efforts.

  4. I too have had thoughts along these lines as as so often you express very well my half-formed mush.

    I do think in common with Mark Gibbens the that this type of media coverage is helpful, as ‘entry level’ awareness- or concern-raising for people who wouldn’t otherwise think about these things. Knowing that I’d worked for the RSPB, my hairdresser asked me about the guillemots that had been on the news (though she couldn’t remember their name. And regularly confuses the RSPB with the RSPCA). This led to quite a good conversational romp around the differences between welfare and conservation, with several other people joining in, asking questions about how many guillemots there are, and what they do when they’re not being washed ashore as so many oily rags.
    While I don’t think my hairdesser will now become a conservation scientist (at least I bloody hope she doesn’t), I do think education is a good thing in and of itself and these small seeds once planted might one day bear some fruit in terms of what the saintly Sir David said on TV last night about humanity behaving itself better generally, and specifically, towards the animal kingdom.
    Humans are worth a bit of tlc, both at the individual and population level.

  5. Hi Mark,

    The simple point we are trying to make is that a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas for seabirds and other wildlife can help ensure populations are resilient enough to cope with and bounce back from one off incidents of this kind. Obviuosly MPAs are not going to prevent this kind of thing.

    As a colleague pointed out to me on Friday: “If you look at the population stats for guillemots in isolation then they would appear to be almost 50% more abundant now than in the late 1980s. However, their productivity has lowered: 0.75 chicks per pair in 1986, 0.5 chicks per pair in 2011. As you know, guillemots are always frequent victims of pollution incidents, but when productivity was higher then their populations could bounce back more quickly. But now with lower productivity their potential to bounce back is lowered. These lower productivity figures are thought to be driven by a fall-off in prey abundance, so…. MPAs would help safeguard important foraging areas, helping these and other seabirds (kittiwakes especially) to have a more robust future.”

    It’s disappointing therefore in this context that no English Marine Conservation Zones being taken forward in 2013 currently include seabirds as protected species. For example, guillemots have been removed along with divers and grebes from the reasons for designating Torbay as an MCZ – one of the areas currently effected. We’re continually failing to give our seabirds the protection they deserve.

    And yes we also need strict enforcement of the regulations which prevent harmful substances being dumped illegally, either from ships at sea or land-based sources.

    And, although I’m no expert, I do get a bit weary of these “there’ no point doing anything ’cause they’ll all die anyway when you put them back” comments. It does a great disservice for people who are doing their best – people like Jean Bradford at South Devon Seabird Trust. They have an wonderful approach to rehabilitation and they ring their birds prior to release. From ringing recoveries, 50% survive more than a year. The longest surviving – 4596 days. http://www.seabirdtrust.co.uk/6.html

    all the best

    Tony Whitehead (RSPB South West)

    1. Tony – thanks very much for a great comment full of information.

      And I enjoyed hearing you on the radio over the last few days – well done.

      Yes if this wakes up Richard Benyon and Defra to the need for a proper network of MPAs that would be great. I wonder whether it works that way or does the opposite and distracts them from the greater needs of the marine environment. Good luck to the RSPB, WTs, MCS and others who are pushing for a better future for the marine environment.

      I’d just gently point out that 50% of robins probably live longer than a year but I have no beef at all with being nice to suffering birds – who would turn aside when faced with suffering? But then, as I’m fairly sure you’d agree, if all we, as a community, do is deal with the symptoms then we will be dealing with these symptoms for ever. We need to cure the disease of unsustainable marine use not just deal with its symptoms in the rare instances when they wash up on our shores under our noses.

      Thanks again.

      1. Thanks Mark … we’re all agreed on this … it would be great if ultimately there were no need for the services of RSPCA, South Devon Seabird Trust and so on. And an interesting point there about whether this distracts from the pressing need for MPAs … I hope not and I’ll do my best to make sure we publicly link the two over the coming days.

        Not quite sure I understand the robin reference – but don’t worry 🙂

        By curious co-incidence Minister Benyon is down in Torbay tomorrow as part of an MCZ consultation ( Info at http://www.drsarah.org.uk/ ).

        all the best, Tony

  6. Mark,
    Intially I was a bit shocked by some parts of your blog today and can’t help think you have said what you’ve said to stimulate a debate. Well thats what I’m hoping anyway. Does it mater about a few dead Razorbills and Guillemots, yes in my opinion. After all it’s not like these sea birds aren’t already strugghling with finding food in and around our seas, I was also under the impression numbers of Razorbills and Gullemotts are on the decline too or am I wrong. I shudder to think how close this latest “mystery” spill is to my current loaction as history has shown last big spill along this strectch of coast washed itself onto the Channel Islands and Guernsey is still dealing with that oil spill. The resulting spill also meant the loss of Puffins that haven’t returned, so in answer to your question YES this important if it is mostly local breeding pairs effected this could possibly obliterate the loacl breeding population to levels were they’re unable to bounce back.
    It’s interesting to note as per yesterday’s blog that RSPCA are on the ground with volunteers doing their best, yet all the RSPB do is make press statements, WHY IS THAT? As a birder I’m ashamed of the lack of the RSPB’s action AGAIN!

    1. Douglas – Dorset Wildlife Trust, South Devon Seabird Rescue, RSPB and RSPCA all have people out looking today. As yesterday, and the day before. Indeed, IMO this has been a good team effort so far. And, as an RSPB press officer, I consider providing information to the public important and rather resent your statement.

    2. Douglas – I’m not sorry to have shocked you but my intention was indeed to stimulate. I think guillemots have increased actually – nationally in the UK at least, but that isn’t the main point.

      But your remarks also illustrate my point. If CI puffins haven’t returned then cleaning up oiled seabirds hasn’t worked for you. We need to stop the source of these incidents – not just ameliorate the impacts for individual birds. However, I wouldn’t find it easy to walk past on the other side of the road if confronted with an oiled guillemot. I think our hearts are a much stronger motivating force than our heads. But if all we do (and I’m not saying it is all we do) is to clean up oiled birds then we will have a job for life as we won’t have cut off the problem at source.

  7. I hope They identify this pollutant sooner rather than later and track down its source. It sounds a bit industrial and it need not be from a marine source – there are innumerable potential shore-based sources along the south coast of England and the north coast of France. If the whole thing is not resolved but goes unaccountably quiet – suspect the military or MoD.

  8. Some reports suggest it is Palm Oil. Why are we carting Palm Oil around? To “reduce carbon emissions” by cutting down rain forests.
    So now, with Palm Oil, we not only lose pristine habitat, we increase carbon emissions and pollute the oceans! A treble own goal!

  9. Sorry Tony if you resent my comment (was I the only one pointing out something in this comment section, I think not!) but as an RSPB press officer how come we didn’t see a press statement from the RSPB for two days? As someone working for the RSPB can you also tell me why the “society for the protection of birds” has left the cleaning of the birds to the RSPCA and smaller organisations like the Seabird rescue and will you be sending some RSPB money to these organisations to cover the work they’ve done, as highlighted in other comments on this section by other people, I think what the other NGO’s including yourself are doing is great, but this mystery spill does highlight another significant issue, how is it going to be possible to police MCZ’s when something like this can happen?

    1. I don’t understand Douglas … I’ve been commenting on this to the press since the story broke. Indeed, I’ve done little else since mid Thursday afternoon. And the RSPB isn’t a welfare organisation – we don’t employ vets or run hospitals – which is why we leave it to others who do.

    2. Douglas, the RSPB was linked to the story from the moment it first broke yet as I have said above, the RSPB has no rescue facilities. The fact that I and some of my colleagues acted as middlemen when injured birds were brought into The Lodge when I worked there was purely voluntary. I have worked at a bird rescue hospital and I could decide the best course of action before the birds were sent on to welfare contacts in the area. I never tried to care for the birds long term myself and for all I know, the practise has probably been discontinued since I left.

      I cannot say whether the RSPB would/could donate money towards the RSPCA rescue effort but as a rough guess, I would say it cannot do this. In my reply above, I mentioned mission statements and the main thing to remember about these is that they form the basis for the organisation’s application for charitabe status. This all means that the RSPB cannot easily and quickly divert money for any purpose outside its operating remit without a prolonged consultation with members, the board of directors and quite possibly, the Charity Commission. To do so would risk a possible legal challenge about rediverting funds inappropriately and even possible loss of charitable status (irrespective of the good cause), quite apart from the fact that the process would take so long it would be of little use to the RSPCA anyway. This neatly leads me onto pointing out that the RSPCA would have smilar restrictions if it wanted to channel funds into a conservation project. The reality is that the two organisations can get on with their own duties in knowing that the other has its area well covered. That is what has happened in the auk case and the only disappointing bit is that the news media have managed to mix up the message about who does what.

  10. Linking with yesterday’s blog, I wonder how much effort (and money) the RSPCA is putting into finding and prosecuting those who are illegally polluting our seas.
    Or are they only interested in political campaigns against easy targets?

  11. Douglas,understand your frustration with RSPB but think the two organisations have distinct lines where each acts and where cruelty is committed it seems to be the RSPCA who do most towards stopping it and although this is different the RSPCA seem expert at it and have the trained people in place.It allows the RSPB to have no conflict with people who could be useful to them in my opinion and definitely works very well.
    Surprised Tony resented your statement really as it seems a natural thought unless it is explained fully.
    David,the hunt no easy target as they are well in with police and the judges and magistrates.Seems they get away with hunting by claiming a trail laid,nonsense of course and also seem to get away with it by taking all female hounds or all male.Funniest thing is taking a cameraman with them so they can film anyone giving them bother like a couple of pensioners telling them to get the hounds away from worrying a Badger Sett.

  12. Thank you Peter for answering the qestion I asked about the funding of the smaller orgnisations involved in this current crisis, I obvioulsy appreciate the RSPCA doesn’t need a financial support from the RSPB, but was refering to perhaps the RSPB diverting a small amount to help such smaller NGO’s and non-NGO’s (volunteers taking birds in for cleaning etc). Dennis I’m not surprised at Tony’s resentment, I too thought it was a fair comment and point although in my unique way, not brilliantly explained, but I guess that’s why I’m in an ever increasing number of EX-RSPB members who think the orgnisation have lost sight of their mission statement and who when vocally call into question the RSPB are resented for doing so….

    1. “but I guess that’s why I’m in an ever increasing number of EX-RSPB members who think the orgnisation have lost sight of their mission statement and who when vocally call into question the RSPB are resented for doing so….”

      Nope, you’ve lost me there again Douglas. Not quite sure how our response to this current tragedy is indicative of us having lost sight of our mission statement. And the bit I resented was this statement “all the RSPB do is make press statements”. Which is just plain wrong.

      1. Firstly Tony my slightly vague response about the RSPB loosing sight of their mission statement DID NOT mention this current situation. But was refering to how the RSPB are moving away from the protection of birds and their habitats and are concerning themselves on various conservation issues, I do believe (I’m sure I even read it on this blog) the RSPB even debated it at their most recent AGM and wether a change in their name would more acurately reflect the varied work they NOW DO. You don’t have to look too far back to see more evidence of the RSPB moving away from their original mission statement, the recent badger cull debate on Newsnight where one of your co-workers was on the show debating against the badger, good, well done but does it really fall into the remit of the RSPB? Leave it to the RSPCA, especially when the RSPB workers main point against the badger cull was more realted to welfare and as you’ve pointed out “YOU’RE NOT A WELFARE ORGANISATION”…..unless I guess when it suits you!
        Now apparently you resent the fact that I said “all the RSPB do is make press statements”….well I hate to be picky but re-read your comment you made on Feb’3 at 5.32pm on this blog Tony!!

        1. Douglas, firstly, apologies for chasing one of your posts again (it is nothing personal) but I am genuinely a bit puzzled by your point about the badger cull. I would say that it is well within the remit of the RSPB to be commenting on control of a wild and native species. To be fair, the dividing lines between conservation and welfare has become blurred on certain issues at various times in the past and I am sure it will continue to do so. I am not sure that citing an incident on Newsnight really proves anything because these things cannot be scripted and it is the role of the programme producer to get participants out of their comfort zone anyway, as a number of politicians have discovered too.

          One really good and admirable aspect to RSPB Public Affairs is that they are pretty much like the Pentagon in that they have planned for a lot of unlikely eventualities. Everything is in place to comment about anything vaguely including wildlife from a casual slip-up by a presenter on Springwatch to…well, comenting on a chemical spill off our shores. How proactively this is applied depends very much on the reaction from you and I.

        2. Wasn’t the RSPB’s original work concerning the feather trade? Not sure this comment implies that the RSPB should just go back to dealing with that. Organisations adapt, with the support of their supporters (because if they didn’t have that support their membership would dwindle not rise), and hopefully they get better at doing good things. As a very happy current RSPB member I’m pleased to see them stepping up for nature everywhere. That’s the best way to protect birds IMO because you can protect their varied habitats, food sources and the network of ecosystems that they are connected too.

    2. Again Douglas, it is much the same with th RSPB’s relationship with other NGOs. There are cooperative projects with other conservation organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, WWT, BTO, MCS and Mammal Society, sometimes with the RSPB providing a major part of the funding. However, we should not forget that all these organisations treasure their independence even if they look at the RSPB membership figures with a certain amount of envy.

      On the other hand, I cannot see why the RSPB should ever add support to say, a wildlife hospital because this has never been part of the society’s operating remit. Indeed, your added caveat does not change the gist of the answer I gave you previously – to fund a welfare project would fall outside the mission statement.

      In actual fact, the RSPB may handle more cash in relative terms than smaller NGOs but it is an oft repeated mistake to assume the society has an unused pool of cash tucked away. All membership money is already committed in various directions and individual campaigns (the kind of thing that arrive with Birds magazine) even have to be specifically covered by separate appeals.

  13. Well Mark your blog certainly stimulated a lot of discussion, as usual, but not many ideas.
    So here goes; Satellite images are used by a number of companies to monitor crop condition. If images of the north sea were available on a suitable time scale I bet nowadays one could get enough computer literate wildlife enthusiasts to monitor the images for spills or backtrack existing ones. Oil settles the sea so it would leave a different wave pattern. If you could get infra red images it would stand out like a sore thumb. I don’t know how much evidence t would take to convict.
    I am sure some enthusiasts could produce an open source computer program to do the hard scanning.
    Astronomers can get loads of enthusiasts to scan images of the stars for interesting facts wildlife lovers cannot be that un-technical.
    Someone somewhere needs to pay for the images I guess. Is that the problem? How about a no win no fee basis, the satellite operators get some of the fine bit like whistle blowers are allowed to be given.
    OK, so having read the blog, who’s mission statement does investigating this sort of idea come under? I think just jumping up and down is OK but some ideas of how to tackle the problem would surely help.

      1. Hi Mark,
        Well it is being done. https://portal.emsa.europa.eu/web/csn
        “ CleanSeaNet is the Near Real Time European satellite based oil spill monitoring and vessel detection service, set up and operated by the EMSA since April 2007. The service provides aggregated products on possible oil spill’s, pollution alerts and related information to the operational maritime administrations within 30 min. after satellite acquisition to allow an effective use of the data for follow up activities. The information is visualised by a specific web application supplemented by a day-to-day operational support by the Agency. With vessel traffic information being available in CleanSeaNet, the service is able to detect and identify vessels that are discharging. CleanSeaNet is a recognised GMES service. Find more information on CleanSeaNet here. “
        So Mark who do we write to, to find out what was discovered? Or if anything was followed up on this and previous occasions. When was this Channel Ils event they talk of on the blog. After 2007 when this was set up.

  14. I thought pollution incidents were within the remit of the Environment Agency? But not sure they cover the marine environment? Even if they do, if the pollution is more than 12 miles off shore it may not come within anyones remit? It is likely this pollution was dumped intentionally without any thought to the consequences. The publicity of dead, dying or recovering birds is one way of provoking outrage – I wonder what affect the ‘oil’ is having on fish, dolphins, whales, crabs, lobsters etc and what happens when it comes ashore? If it is colourless and odourless – who will know what it has done and to what?

    In the meantime wooden spoons and red herrings seem to be the order of the day. We should concentrate on the finding the source of this incident whilst offering active or armchair support to those organisations and volunteers who are doing their best to help a fellow suffering animal in a time of need. Trashing each other is as bad as trashing the environment.

  15. This is a well-established dilemma, I guess a good proportion of RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and other NGOs’members are more concerned with welfare than conservation, or at least do not appreciate the difference. I have always thought that a lot of our members would resign if they knew that ‘management’ means killing lots of things, although perhaps a lot more plants than animals. In the USA there is something called the Humane Society of the United States. It has millions of members and does not even try to distinguish between welfare and conservation, it just does both. One of its guiding principles is non-lethal methods of control of problem species.

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